Meet The Machines That Build Complex PCBs

You can etch a simple PCB at home with a few chemicals and some patience. However, once you get to multilayer boards, you’re going to want to pay someone to do the dirty work.

The folks behind the USB Armory project visited the factories that build their 6 layer PCB and assemble their final product. Then they posted a full walkthrough of the machines used in the manufacturing process.

The boards start out as layers of copper laminates. Each one is etched by applying a film, using a laser to print the design from a Gerber file, and etching away the unwanted copper in a solution. Then the copper and fibreglass prepreg sandwich is bonded together with epoxy and a big press.

Bonded boards then get drilled for vias, run through plating and solder mask processes and finally plated using an Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG) process to give them that shiny gold finish. These completed boards are shipped off to another company, where a pick and place followed by reflow soldering mounts all the components to the board. An X-Ray is used to verify that the BGA parts are soldered correctly.

The walkthrough gives a detailed explanation of the process. It shows us the machines that create products we rely on daily, but never get to see.

Putting new into the old – a Phonograph upgrade.

[smellsofbikes] recently came into possession of a 1970’s “stereo radio phonograph” cabinet consisting of a vinyl record player, AM and FM radio, and eight track tape player. The radio worked, the turntable didn’t sound too nice, and the tape player didn’t work at all. A new needle fixed the turntable, but the eight-track was in bad shape. So he replaced the tape player with a BeagleBoneBlack which plays streaming internet radio.

Hopefully, this fix is temporary, since he has carefully disconnected the tape player connections in the hope of fixing it soon. The swap out involved a fair bit of engineering, so he’s split his build log into several bite sized chunks. The first step was to set up the BBB, upgrade it and add in all the network and audio related stuff. Audio on the BBB is available only via the HDMI port, but [smellsofbikes] had a USB soundcard handy, so the next step was setting that up. He installed mpg321 – the command line mp3 player and set it up to play music streaming from somafm. Next up was getting some scripts and programs to run automatically during system bootup. The final part of the setup was adding a WiFi router as a repeater connected to the BBB via an ethernet cable. He could have used a tiny WiFi USB dongle, but he already had the router lying around, and he wanted to dedicate USB to audio functions alone, and use the Ethernet port for Internet.

He then worked on identifying the wires that go from the tape player to the amplifier, spliced them, and hooked them up to the audio sound card on the BBB. With this done, the upgrade was more or less complete – the system played streaming music and stations could be switched remotely (via SSH to BBB). [smellsofbikes] reckoned it would be nice to use the existing controls in the phonograph cabinet to control the internet streaming music, instead of controlling it via a remote computer. The cabinet had 4 indicator lamps that indicated which track was being played and a button to switch between tracks. He removed the old indicator panel and put in a fresh PCB, designed in KiCad and cut on his LPKF circuit board plotter. An aluminum knob machined out of hex bar-stock works as the new track change button. At this point, he called it a wrap. The BBB and Asus router go inside the cabinet, and the old (non-functional) tape player is put in place. Quite an interesting build, and we look forward to when he actually gets the tape player working. [Alan Martin], aka “The Most Interesting Engineer In The World” has told him that “it is a moral imperative that you repair the eight-track and get it working”. [Alan] has promised to send [smellsofbikes] a suitcase full of brand new, still in their plastic wrappers, eight-track tapes when he gets it working.

Game Tin: Handheld Games with no Batteries

Anyone who grew up with a Game Boy knows how well they sucked through AA batteries. [Nick]’s Game Tin console solves this problem by running of an ultracapacitor charged by solar power.

The console is based on a EFM32 microcontroller: an ARM device designed for low power applications. The 128×128 pixel monochrome memory display provides low-fi graphics while maintaining low power consumption.

There’s two solar cells and a BQ25570 energy harvesting IC to charge the ultracap. This chip takes care of maximum power point tracking to get the most out of the solar cells. If it’s dark out, the device can be charged in about 30 seconds by connecting USB power.

The 10 F Maxwell ultracapacitor can run a game on the device for 1.5 hours without sunlight, and the device runs indefinitely in the sun. Thanks to the memory display, applications that have lower refresh rates will have much lower power consumption.

The Game Tin is open source, and is being developed using KiCad. You can grab all the EDA files from Bitbucket. [Nick] is also gauging interest in the Game Tin, and hopes to release it as a kit.

CircuitMaker from Altium

Altium recently announced CircuitMaker, their entry into the free/low-cost PCB design tool market. They’re entering a big industry, with the likes of Eagle, KiCad, gEDA, and a host of other tool suites. We had a few minutes to talk with Max in the Altium booth at World Maker Faire, and even got a bit of time with the tool itself.

Hands on, it definitely has the look and feel of Altium Designer, right down to the familiar yellow and green boxes for schematic and sheet parts. Center stage was the 3D view, a feature which Altium has had in their software since the late 90’s.

CircuitMaker’s website is pushing the collaboration aspect of the software. Design choices can be reviewed and commented on in real-time. This also suggests that the data files will live in Altium’s own cloud storage system.

CircuitMaker is still in the pre-beta phase, but they’re looking for beta testers now, so head over to the site and sign up!

CERN Shows Off New KiCad Module Editor

Photo from video demo of new KiCad module editor

CERN, the people that run a rather large particle collider, have just announced their most recent contributions to the KiCad project. This work focused on adding new features to the module editor, which is used to create footprints for parts.

The update includes support for DXF files, which will make it easy to import part drawings, or use external tools for more complex designs. New distribute tools make it easy to space out pads evenly. The copy and paste function now allows you to set a reference point, making it easy to align blocks. Finally, the pad enumeration tool lets you quickly set pin numbers.

CERN has already implemented a new graphics engine for KiCad, and demonstrated a new push and shove routing tool. The work plan for CERN’s KiCad contributions shows their long term goals. If you’re interested in what CERN is doing with KiCad, you can check out the CERN KiCad Developers Team on Launchpad.

After the break, watch a quick run through of the new features.

Continue reading “CERN Shows Off New KiCad Module Editor”

A High-Speed Logic Gate Board for the Easy-Phi Project

A (long) while ago I presented you the Easy-phi project, which aims at building a simple, cheap but intelligent rack-based open hardware/software platform for hobbyists. With this project, you simply have a rack to which you add cards (like the one shown above) that perform the functions you want.

During these last months my team has been finishing the design and production of several different boards so I’ll start showing them off during these next weeks. Today I present you the High Speed Logic Gate Board, a quantum-physicist requested easy-phi module that can perform logic AND/OR functions at <2GHz speeds. This quite technical write-up is mainly about the constraints that high-speed signals pose for schematics design but is also about the techniques that are used for HS signals termination and monitoring. I hope, however, it’ll give our readers a nice overview of what the insides of a high-speed system may look like. All the files used for this board may be found on the official GitHub repository.

Fail of the Week: Unconnected Nets in KiCad


From the title and the image above you surely have already grasped this Fail of the Week. We’ve all been there. Design a board, send it to fab or etch it yourself, and come to find out you’ve missed a connection. Automatic checks in your software should prevent this, but when making small changes it’s easy to overlook running the checks again. This is exactly what [Clint] did with this board; leaving a net unconnected in the schematic, which made its way through to the board layout and into the OSHPark boards.

Okay, so fix it with jumper wire which is clearly what he did (white wire in the lower left image above). But since this is rev3 of his PCB it’s pretty upsetting that it happened. The meat and potatoes of the fail is the missing software feature that led to it. KiCad doesn’t have a pin swap tool in the board layout. Really? We use KiCad frequently and didn’t realize that the feature was missing. Needing to simplify his board layout, [Clint] went back to the schematic to swap some resistor network pins by hand. He pushed the change through the netlist and into the board layout, not realizing he had left an input gate unconnected.

A bit of searching proves that pin swapping may be coming to KiCad soon. It’s on the CERN roadmap of features they plan to add to the open source PCB layout software. We remember hearing about CERN’s plans quite a while ago, and thought we featured it but the only reference we could find is [Chris Gammell’s] comment on a post from back in December. It’s worth looking at their plans, these are all features that would make KiCad a juggernaut.

EDITORIAL NOTE: We’ll soon be out of story leads for this series. If you have enjoyed reading weekly about fails please write up your own failure and send us the link. Of course any documented fails you find around the internet should also be sent our way. Thanks!

2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which runs every Wednesday. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your past failures and sending us a link to the story — or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.